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Will it Help or Hurt for Self-Defense?

Earning a black belt in the martial arts is no small accomplishment. Years of hard work, mixed with sweat, blood, and numerous injuries, have culminated in having your instructor tie the highest color rank firmly around your waist. The feeling is incredible, to say the least. And now you’re fully capable of handling any physical conflict that comes your way. Or are you?

A Black Belt: Help or Hurt?

The truth is that earning a black belt is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you put in years at the dojo and worked hard to get the coveted ranking.

On the other hand, your training was in a controlled setting, with safety gear and parameters for fighting fair. Not to mention the ability to “do-over” if your technique wasn’t on-the-money and successful.

The bottom line is, can earning a black belt be incredibly helpful during a conflict? Or are there factors that may make it detrimental if you don’t understand its limits and keep your mouthy comments in check?

Here, we’ll examine the pros and cons of a black belt rank. Likewise, we’ll discuss how to use it without ending up knocked out and on the floor.

Newly Obtained Rank

In most martial arts, the penultimate color rank from the coveted black belt is a brown belt. This is the “eleventh grade” of the martial arts world. You have loads of training under your belt, but you still aren’t there yet. You may even be teaching some classes. However, the black belts are still and always will be the center of attention in the dojo.

With that said, the day you go from brown belt to black belt really doesn’t equate to anything physically different. Rather, it’s a change in your mindset that you “made it,” and now you are at the top. This can be a dangerous place to be.

(Photo by iStock Photo: mauro_grigollo)

Like a newly graduated college student, you have the “degree” but no experience to back you up. Yes, it feels good to tell others of your achievement. But anyone out to test you may give you a fight that you didn’t see coming. And you won’t (in most cases) have the real-world experience to confidently win.

Lacking Real-World Experience

Experience is more powerful than many may believe. You were taught (hopefully) numerous scenarios that could come into play during a skirmish on the streets. Likewise, you were instructed how to go from one technique to another if your first choice failed. However, this gives you a false sense of security.

The “if this happens, do this…” way of learning doesn’t give you the real-life unpredictability that occurs during a fight. This could include weapons entering the fight, unstable terrain, or even the limitation that your clothing may give you (a martial arts uniform has a lot of “give” when moving). There are numerous factors that you could encounter that were never part of your “if, then” plan.

In a street fight, the other guy could pull a real knife, not a training weapon that most black belts are used to defending against.
(Photo by iStock Photo)

Simply, if you’re a fresh black belt, you still have a lot to learn about fighting in the real world.

Overconfidence From Testing

Overconfidence is a dangerous thing when a verbal conflict is just seconds away from becoming physical. One place that your overconfidence could have been created and cemented is your black belt test.

A black belt test, in the martial arts world, should be the most difficult, challenging, and physically exhausting ranking test that you ever took. This test varies among martial arts styles. But usually, all include intense warm-up exercises, some form of sparring, and numerous self-defense techniques. Then, weapon defense, multiple attack scenarios, and a final round of push-you-until-you’re-spent, one-on-one with either the top black belts or your own high-ranking instructor.

Black belt tests can push a martial artist to their max, which gives them the idea that they can take on anything. This isn’t true.
(Photo by iStock Photo: LPETTET)

Now, that’s a lot of punishment to endure. The fact that you made it through and succeeded can give a person a huge confidence boost. This is the problem.

First, the test was in a controlled setting, unlike an unexpected attack on the street.

Second, the experienced testers know just how far to push an individual mentally and physically. However, a real fight has no such boundaries.

Third, all techniques and sparring sessions have defined parameters and rules that must be followed. Again, this doesn’t happen in the streets.

True, a black belt test is one of the most intense undertakings one can endure and is a great accomplishment. Unfortunately, it also puts many practitioners into the mindset that they can handle just about anything. That’s not the case.

Ranking In a Weak Defense Art

Unlike what many non-practitioners may believe, not all martial arts are the same. The arts vary from intense self-defense-based to more philosophical in nature, competition-focused, and finally, a mixture of forms and exercise. One is not better than another. They are simply different.

That said, if you achieve black belt rank in a martial art that doesn’t emphasize self-defense, you may be setting yourself up for failure in a real-world fight. Also, if you spar in the martial art of your choice, you may be confined by specific rules. This can lead to making them a habit.

While sparring, you may not be able to attack certain body parts or go for a takedown or joint lock. This can severely limit you in a real-world fight, while your opponent has no such restrictions.

Positive Results of A Black Belt

It may seem there has been a lot of negativity about martial arts and their practicality in a street fight. However, the benefits of gaining a black belt cannot be ignored.

First and foremost, the confidence that years of training can provide may make others reconsider starting a fight with them. Just walking with their head up, displaying that they are not an easy target, can make the trouble-makers look elsewhere.

Also, years of training can build up a person’s endurance and allow them to outlast their opponent during a fight. The adrenaline and intensity of the situation can cause a person to become winded in just a very short time. However, the martial arts practitioner, who is used to such situations, can get the upper hand on their quickly-exhausted foe.

Additionally, a black belt’s speed and reactivity are surely better than most non-practicing opponents. Repetitive movements become natural over time, and instinctively, a black belt can block or throw a strike without thinking about it first. This can be immensely important during the first few seconds of a fight.

Finally, using weapons during training—as well as defense against weapons—allows the martial artist not to be surprised by a weapon if it appears during a fight. In fact, if they can disarm their attacker and use the weapon against their foe, all the better for them.

Don’t Stop What You Like (But Understand Its Limitations)

The best takeaway from this is to think of your black belt rank as just another weapon in your arsenal. It should start with you being observant of your surroundings—who’s around you and where you should not go. This is called situational awareness.

Situational Awareness Pat McNamara lead
“Intuitiveness is a gift and a primal instinct that we cannot afford to relinquish. Thankfully, a little situational awareness goes a long way.” (Photo by Pat McNamara) (Photo by Pat McNamara)

Then, you should use verbal negotiations to diffuse a conflict before it becomes physical. The ability to talk your way out of things is so much better than nursing injuries or visiting the hospital.

However, if all else fails and things get rough, you can utilize your black belt skills to overcome your aggressor. But be aware that the belt alone won’t save you. That’s up to the competent person wearing it.

Did you know?

  • Only about 2% of all martial arts students reach the rank of black belt.
  • The average number of years it takes most people to achieve a rank of black belt is 5 to 6 years.
  • Contrary to what many may think, Bruce Lee never had a black belt. He studied Wing Chun initially, and it doesn’t have a belt grading system.
  • Although the black belt is the last color rank you can earn (in most martial arts), you continue to advance by earning degrees on your black belt.
  • Some believe that the origin of the black belt was that it started as a white belt that became dirty over the years of training.

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